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Breaking The Stigma Of Intellectual Disability Through Sport

11/08/2017  Jemima Browning

Ben1183 via Getty Images

With the Special Olympics National Games – the largest sports event to take place in GB for people with an intellectual (learning) disability taking place in Sheffield this week, now is the perfect opportunity to discuss the immense challenges facing young people with intellectual disabilities.

There is a misconception amongst those in the mainstream world about people with intellectual disabilities (ID), due to a lack of understanding. Often for a person with ID, their disability is seen before their personal traits, which leads to the perception that they cannot do certain things. This is wrong.

It leads to the isolation of those with ID and thus the lack of opportunity to take part arises. A shocking number of young people do not, or do not have the opportunity, to take part in sport during their school years – and this continues into adulthood with more than 80% of adults with ID not achieving daily recommended levels of physical activity.

I have experienced the negative impact these perceptions can have on a young person, and the barriers they present to involvement in sport, first hand with my brother Will, who has Down’s Syndrome. He has often felt isolated, and that people judge him as soon as they see him, based on his intellectual disability.

Play Unified, an initiative by Special Olympics GB and the Youth Sport Trust, has helped my brother and thousands of others like him.

People now accept Will more and allow him to join in. He jokes with his friends and I truly believe they do not regard him as a ‘disabled person’, they see him as Will. Play Unified has helped break down the barriers of isolation Will had previously experienced, and provides an inclusive opportunity to take part, something that has not always been the case for him.

Play Unified aims to change perceptions of and attitudes towards young people with intellectual disabilities. With young people aged 14-25 at its core, the campaign has been rolled out in 200 schools nationwide in its first year, involving more than 18,000 young people.

Play Unified is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to understanding, acceptance and friendship – a principle that we have seen come to life as Tadcaster Grammar School through our involvement in the initiative.


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